October 1943–April 1944
The Gruppe came into being in October 1943 after III./SKG 10 was withdrawn from the Italian front to Graz, Austria and then renamed before moving to Laon-Athies later in the Autumn. Other demands prevented any speedy restoration of operational readiness: 20 technical personnel were employed to bolster Athies’ role in Unternehmen Steinbock, others were detached to the Geschwader’s I. and II. Gruppen in Viterbo, Italy to gain combat experience. The aircraft allocated to III./SG 4 were diverted the Italian battlefront. On 10 February the Gruppe had “again one pilot” at base, the implication being that none was more usual. On 20 February 1944 the unit had no aircraft while strength in aircrew was:
Only nine pilots (including the Kommandeur, Maj. Gerhard Weyert, and his Staffelkapitäne) had logged over 60 ground-attack sorties; eight had more than 20; and six had only meagre operational experience. The remaining seven had not flown any Schlacht operations and one’s experience was confined to bombers. To make matters worse, it was anticipated that by time full establishment figure was attained the average experienced pilot would not have flown for over six months Unless an intensive training programme was begun, small success and heavy losses were to be expected once the Gruppe was again in combat. It was important to get all detached aircrew back as soon as could be managed. For example Leutnant Günther Just and Fw. Koslowski had gone to Le Bourget on 18 February to ferry aircraft to the Gruppen in Italy; three days later Hptm. Heinz Mihlan (a forner fighter pilot and Kapitän of 8./SG 4) was sent to Viterbo to gain ground-attack experience; he was due back on 2 April.
Fw 190 deliveries were reported underway on 16 February with three on hand by the end of the month. More (largely A-6 models, A-7s would follow in April) were to follow and as of 20 March each Staffel had 5 aircraft, the Gruppe recording 34 on strength when the month ended. Once machines began to arrive, it was decided that a training group should be set up under Ltn. Ottmar Simon while the 7. Staffel maintained the aircraft themselves. Meanwhile, there were regular meetings of officers to plan how the Gruppe should deploy to advanced landing grounds when the invasion came and not least how it should defend its own bases and quarters. Practice alerts were staged, showing that not everyone reached his post promptly or with the right kit, some even got lost because they were unsure where they should be reporting. Orders were given that all extraneous personal effects be sent home. Apparently with Resistance activity in mind, instructions were issued about guarding dispersals and the need to carry loaded handguns.
Over the coming weeks it was established that the opening anti-invasion sorties would be flown from »Platz B« (Frières) with 250 kg bombs. The first targets would be shipping and so the appropriate bombs should be stored near the aircraft. Already in February it was foreseen that enemy fighters might be encountered during deployment to forward bases and that those bases would be bombed. The unit was aware that fighter escort for its operations was unlikely since “too few fighters are available and these are clearly overstretched”. Another issue which would have important consequences had been debated on 10 February: whether crew chiefs should be carried in the Fw 190 rear fuselages when deploying to forward bases. The advantage was that technical personnel would be immediately available on landing, the drawback was that heavy losses might ensue if hostile fighters were encountered en route. Luftflotte 3 was asked for a ruling and by the 16th had agreed that they should be taken along when transferring and so the necessary instruction was set in train.
On 15 March four Fw 190 flew a practice operation from Clastres which did not go at all well: air-to-ground contact was lost after a few minutes; lacking communication with the forward controller in the target area, the exercise’s objectives could not be achieved; and since no warning was received, the Focke-Wulfs found themselves in contact with incoming Allied aircraft. To cap it all, the returning Schwarm was fired on by friendly Flak SW of St. Albert. The verdict was that the Gruppe’s pilots were still not sufficiently trained and that both men and aircraft had been unnecessarily endangered. There was a practice alert on 29 March which highlighted several deficiencies but this does not seem to have entailed any actual flying.
An officers’ conference on 20 April stated that, based on the reports of its constituent elements, the Gruppe could be considered operational. Two days later, under Ltn. Günther Esau of the 8. Staffel, nine Fw 190 took part in a live-fire exercise with I./SS-Panzer Grenadier Regiment 37 on a training ground between Vouillé and Neuville-de-Poitou, WNW of Poitiers. Although the weather delayed their deployment to Tours, arming and refuelling were swiftly completed. Leaving three aircraft in reserve, six Fw 190 took off at 13.25 (local time), radio contact was established with the liaison officer and the troops duly marked their front line with smoke. A 600 m cloud base dictated a shallow dive attack on their target, a trench system and bunkers established on a reverse slope. After bombing, the pilots strafed anti-tank gun emplacements but Esau had to turn back from his first run after a round jammed in the barrel. He was able to lead a second sortie, in one of the reserve aircraft, bombing and shooting up artillery positions at 15.35. Everything went well, as Esau was able to confirm when shown over the target area afterward by the Grenadiers.
The Gruppe was slated for a Sondereinsatz (special operation) and the necessary training was conducted by Obltn. Heinrich Hesse, Kapitän of 9./SG 4, in Mont de Marsan from 24–30 April, each Staffel being allotted a Ju 52 to take its groundcrews there. Whatever the planned mission was, it would require continual practice in low-flying and strafing after brief pop-up manoeuvres, all potentially useful in attacking a landing fleet. Considerable activity over the Atlantic coast—variously described as “flights by Fighter School Cazaux”, “training by Fw 190’s” and “flights by fighter aircraft”—was detected by Allied Signals Intelligence.
continued on next page …
PART ONE OF EIGHT
Article © Nick Beale 2019–20